It is not long after World War II, and a little boy sits in his home in Madisonville, Ky., acting out a fantasy. He dreams of being a sports radio broadcaster one day, and around him are the tools of the trade – at least, when you’re nine.
A microphone made out of cardboard. Earmuffs for a head set. A shoe box with dials drawn with a crayon by his father. A baseball board game sits before him, so he can do the play-by-play.
“I described it all, to myself of course,” Joel Utley was saying over the phone. “Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis, that’s where I was. Actually, I was probably in my living room. Sometimes I’d be outside in the open air under a shade tree. Me and the ants. They all ran away, they didn’t like my broadcast.”
Seven decades later, Joel Utley is still calling the games. They’re real now, but the bright-eyed excitement of a child has never faded, not in 56 seasons broadcasting Kentucky Wesleyan basketball.
“I just love it, that’s all,” he said. “The love of it has kept me coming back. It’s never been work for me. Never.”
It’s never been work through the 1622 Kentucky Wesleyan games he has done. Or the 12 national championship games he has called – his Panthers winning eight of them as a Division II dynasty. It was not even work the time he endured a broadcaster’s nightmare scenario.
“We were playing Lewis University and I had the hiccups. I did the game solo – I still do – and my wife and I have listened to that cassette tape. I don’t know how much it came across the air, but I knew what to listen for – two hours of a hiccup game.”
Wait a minute. Solo? For 56 years, he has been doing all this . . . alone? Most of the time, yes, especially away games. Radio stations in Owensboro weren’t paying to send duets on the road.
“When I first started, I even read the commercials every break. Once the guy at the station put me on the air, he could go out to a movie, because I had to read the commercials live. I didn’t know any better.
“It’s nothing I set out to do, it just turned out that way. I would have welcomed somebody to help me out. It’s not an ego thing for me, it’s just out of necessity. I don’t even think about it.”
This all started with a young boy listening to St. Louis Cardinal games. His hero was Stan Musial, but there was also Harry Caray, the baseball radio legend. “I grew up wanting to be a broadcaster,” he said. By his late teens, Utley was working high school games, and attending first Murray State and then Kentucky, though he left before graduating. In 1961, the radio station in Owensboro called with an offer.
He was to be news and sports director, with Kentucky Wesleyan games as an add-on. “My days were long but I didn’t mind, because I loved what I was doing.”
Somewhere back in time, there were even hours as a disc jockey, spinning Elvis Presley and Chuck Barry records. “What a nightmare. That was pretty close to being work. I didn’t have any kind of talent for that kind of work.”
On Dec. 2, 1961, Dean Smith coached his first game at North Carolina. Also, Kentucky Wesleyan beat Cal State Northridge 100-64, with Utley at the microphone for his first Panthers broadcast. He has been there ever since.
Oh, he’s missed a handful of games over the years. Surgery here, a death in the family there. But not many. And it helped to be calling a program that was a juggernaut. Utley has broadcast just six losing seasons in 56. The golden era came at the turn of the century, when the Panthers advanced to six consecutive national championship games, going 189-18.
Now, he is one of the longest-tenured sports radio voices in the country, if not the longest in college basketball.
“I’m pretty much a relic, I understand that,” he said. “Let me put it this way, I thank God for the opportunity to have the life and the health I have enjoyed, and I appreciate my employers over the years for sticking with me.”
He once moved out of full-time radio work for a while to do real estate and auctioneering, but the station said, certainly, he could keep the Kentucky Wesleyan post. He raised three kids. And in 1974, at the age of 35, he finished his college degree.
“I wasn’t interested in college when I left, and then I realized later, that was the wrong example for me to set for my children,” he said. Plus, he got a push from a Kentucky Wesleyan basketball coach.
“We were on a road trip once and Bob Daniels said `Joel, you need to go back to school and get your degree. However long it takes, you do want to have it.’ And he was right. I’ll always be indebted to Bob Daniels for encouraging me.”
One thing never changed; Utley’s reverence for the power and possibility of radio, where every detail is an opportunity for the broadcaster to connect with his listeners. Colors, scenes, sounds. “Simple things, yes, but unless you describe it to them, they don’t know,” he said. “When I first started out, I didn’t do all of that. It finally dawned on me, your whole object is to paint a word picture.”
Now Kentucky Wesleyan fans who listened to Utley as a young up-and-comer have grandkids who listen to Utley at the age of 78. But for how much longer?
“Good question. We all would like to go out under our own terms,” he said. “I think the worst thing is when somebody says, you’ve been doing that too long. My health is OK. You just hope you can keep your brain and your mouth on the same page. When the time comes when you can’t do that, it’s time to hit the road. I’ve got a buddy here and I’ve told him he’d better be telling me the truth, when I ask him should I keep moving on or not.”
So Joel Utley has no answer. What he does know is he can’t wait for season No. 57 to begin.